Before the wall dividing Berlin into East and West fell, some people risked their lives crossing that deadly no-man's-land. Hansel, a self-proclaimed "girlie-boy," escaped by marrying an American soldier named Luther. Upon his lover's request, Hansel gave up his penis, changed his name to Hedwig and donned women's clothes. She came to America as a "war bride" recovering from a botched sex-change operation that left her with one angry inch of her male equipment. And then, as bad luck would have it, the wall fell.
Hedwig now tours seedy bars and other venues, telling her sad story while wearing a blond wig and dressed to the nines, or, in her case, perhaps the tens. Onstage she tells the tale of a lifelong search for her better self, the tragedy of her abandonment by Luther, and her affair with Tommy Gnosis, who also left her, taking the songs she wrote that led to his stardom. In between the tales, Hedwig and her band of four present some mighty fine rock.
The other member of Hedwig's team is Yitzhak, just a plain old transvestite played and sung by Katie Galazka (a recent Wayne State grad who's also in the local band Hellen). As a duo both on and off the stage, Yitzhak and Hedwig present idyllic duality, but not before Hedwig sings her heart out in 10 or so rock songs that tell of heartbreak and betrayal. Don't get it wrong Hedwig is always good for a laugh. Give her a beer, which she snogs onstage while spilling her guts in less than two hours, with plenty of wisecracks.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, written by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, has already been an off-Broadway and big screen success. In Breathe Art Theatre Project's spoofy production, ably directed by Valerie Bonasso, it is impossible not to believe in Hedwig. Matter of fact, the other evening, some drag queens in the audience did think she was a real live drag queen, when, in fact, Hedwig is portrayed by actor Kevin Young.
Yes, shocking but true, Hedwig is a fictional creation, yet she seems so real. Also shocking: Young no pun intended here is only 26 years old. And yet he looks and sounds like a fortysomething with a belting voice and a vibrato any rock star would proudly bring home to Mom.
More oddness: Young grew up in Grosse Pointe. At Grosse Pointe South High School, he sang in the choir and played leads in Broadway-type musicals, such as the prince in Cinderella. For a while, he also had a band called the Barrington Blues Band. After graduating from the conservatory of Webster University in St. Louis, Young did a one-year stint in Los Angeles, but found it tough working to pay rent while auditioning. Visiting Detroit for a family funeral, he found a "booming theater scene," so he moved back, began working and has stayed busy since.
For the past two summers, and again this May, Young has a steady gig playing a young Tom Edison, seven days a week, at Greenfield Village. The show is scripted but also allows him room to improvise, answering questions from the audience as if he actually were Edison back when he invented the light bulb. And that spontaneity is part of what makes Young such a great Hedwig.
Young's audition for Breathe Art Theatre Project's leading role was sort of accidental. Not long after having his tonsils removed, the actor was trying out for another Breathe Art production, and instead was asked to return and audition for Hedwig. When he did, he sang one of the key songs of the show the wrenching song Wicked Little Town and was then asked to perform another. Taking his iPod into the next room, he quickly surfed the net, downloaded another of Hedwig's songs, wrote the lyrics on a scrap piece of paper and in about five minutes, sang it for the director. That evening, he was cast in the role.
"I was in shock because it's very against my type," Young says. Perhaps it was meant to be for him. Perhaps there is some Hedwig in each of us.
Thanks to the opening weekend's rapturous greeting and standing ovations for Hedwig, Yitzak and the Angry Inch Band (led by 21-year-old music director Phred Brown and featuring Eric Gutman, Andrew Barlow and Bradford Helner), Hedwig's run has already been extended. One minor point of criticism: If the sound levels of the band could be decreased and Hedwig's increased, I'm sure everyone in the audience would be delighted to hear Hedwig's words ring louder, clearer and that much more true.
8 p.m., Fridays; 8 and 11 p.m., Saturdays; and 7 p.m., Sundays through April 15 at 1515 Broadway, Detroit; 519-980-0607 or 313-965-1515.Michael H. Margolin writes about the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org